Thursday, August 26, 2021

When I SAY You Can Know It

Despite the pandemic, there’s still been a lot of fantastic storytelling going on. Books. Movies. TV shows. Some of it’s been fun, some of it nostalgic, some of it... well, let’s be honest, some of it was greatly delayed because of said pandemic. Regardless there’s been a lot of enjoyable stuff.


As Uncle Ben taught us, with great storytelling comes great spoilers.

As I’m sure you know, spoilers are a matter of great contention. Is it my fault or your fault if I post spoilers to something and you see them? How much time has to pass before spoilers are acceptable? Does getting them really affect my enjoyment of the story? Do spoilers even matter?

I’ve talked about (and in some cases, argued about) all these before, here and on the wider internet. But it’s that last one I wanted to blather on about today. Specifically, a certain angle some folks take with it you may have seen. It goes something like this...

”If knowing a spoiler ruins your story... maybe your story’s not that good.”

This one always makes me grind my teeth. Partly because it’s kind of an inherently smug thing to say, but also because it shows a basic misunderstanding of storytelling. Which is why it’s doubly annoying when I see it from... well, storytellers.

So let’s talk about narrative structure for a few minutes.

I’ve talked about this before at length, so I won’t do too much here (hit that link if you want a lot more). For our immediate purposes, narrative structure’s the order I’ve decided my plot points and character elements need to follow. It’s the sequence I want my audience to receive information in so they’ll get a certain dramatic effect. Simply put, narrative structure is the way I’ve chosen to tell my story.

If I want to tell my story in a straight A-to-Z fashion, that’s my narrative choice. If I want to use a bunch of flashbacks, that’s also up to me as the storyteller. Heck, if I decide to go completely nonlinear and change timeframes every other page without any apparent rhyme or reason... I mean, that’s my call. I’m the one telling the story and I (hopefully) have solid reasons for why I’m telling it in this specific way.

But whichever way I do it—assuming I do have a reason and I’m not just skipping around wildly because I thought it’d be cool—I’ve made a specific choice for my audience to get this piece of information first, this one second, this one third, and so on and so forth up to my five hundred and fortieth piece of information.

Yes, all real novels contain exactly five hundred and forty elements. No more, no less, just as Plato said in his many treatise on storytelling.


Now, that order’s important because my narrative structure is one of the thing that defines my story. If I put them in a different order, it’s a different story. That makes sense, right? An example I’ve used before is The Sixth Sense. If you’ve never seen it before and somehow avoided hearing about it... well, first off, seriously, good for you. Go see it right now. Go! Now! I can’t believe you’ve made it this long. And I’m about to spoil it, so please don’t keep reading.

Did you go away?

Okay, spoiler-filled explanation...

The Sixth Sense is the skin-crawling story of child psychologist named Malcolm who's trying to treat a little boy named Cole. Cole’s haunted by ghosts that only he can see, which leaves him constantly traumatized and in shock. Malcolm helps Cole realize the ghosts are, in their own way, equally scared and asking for help. And as Cole begins to understand that his powers are a gift, not a curse, Malcolm comes to realize that he’s a ghost—that he died over a year ago in an encounter we saw at the start of the movie.

What’s great, though, is that—like I said up above—if you watch the movie a second time (or if someone spoils the twist for you), it becomes a very different story. In fact, knowing the truth about Malcolm and the other ghosts, the story becomes less scary and much more tragic. Almost goofy at points. Now it’s a story about a kid and his ghost friends solving mysteries. It’s pretty much Paranorman.

That’s the key thing here—The Sixth Sense becomes a different story. Not the one Shyamalan intended for us to see. Definitely not the one he narratively structured. The audience learning the truth about Malcolm is intended to be element five hundred and nine, not element one that we knew before we even sat down. Knowing the big twist changes it into a different story.

So the whole “...maybe your story’s not that good” argument doesn’t make a lot of sense, because if I see a bunch of spoilers it means I haven’t seen your story. I saw a different story that had all the same elements, but in a different order and thus with different dramatic weights. It had a completely different narrative structure. I got Paranorman, not The Sixth Sense. Not that there's anything wrong with Paranorman (I love it) but... it's not the initial experience Shyamalan was trying to create for us.

Now, there’s another, related point we can make here. By their nature, spoilers tend to be some kind of reveal. It’s a piece of unknown or unexpected information. Maybe it’s a cool twist. Maybe it’s the identity of the murderer. Maybe it’s just a little cameo/ crossover beat. And sometimes, once that information’s been revealed, we realize this story didn’t have much else going for it. Once we know who the murderer is, we realize it was our own desire to know the answer carrying us through the story, not really the story itself. The story’s not flawed, it’s just... well, also not that great in any way.

Or maybe the answer just wasn’t quite worth the build up. Maybe the murderer turns out to be... well, exactly who we thought it was. Or someone we absolutely never could have considered (“Chris? Who the hell is Chris?”). Maybe the big twist happens and it... doesn’t make a lot of sense? Maybe it doesn’t change anything or doesn’t mean anything (“Chris is actually Pat’s long lost cousin? Well who the hell is Pat?”). In these cases the story beat might land with some impact in the moment, but not so much after the fact.

And, yeah, these stories have problems. I mean, a twist by its very nature should sort of retroactively rewrite large swaths of my story. If it doesn’t do that... well, that means I screwed up. If my flashback doesn’t make linear sense within my story, then I’ve done something wrong. My reveals aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do.

But problems with something flawed doesn’t mean the principle is flawed. I can’t say narrative structure doesn’t matter because a couple stories have crappy narrative structure. That’s like saying all sushi is bad because I bought sushi at a gas station once and it made me sick. Or, y’know, that Sharknado5: Global Swarming has a dumb twist that doesn’t change anything, therefore I can give away a bunch of stuff from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

I mean, maybe it’s just me, but that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense...

Yes, a really good story will still work once you know the big reveal. That’s why there are books we like to re-read and movies we watch three or four times. The storytellers were very careful to make sure  their narrative would still work even when it was forced to switch tracks because we knew things. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t want us to see the original story they planned out.

I know in my own writing I love having a good twists and reveals. Things that’ll make people sit up and go “WhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaAAAAATTT???” or maybe even shriek a favorite curse word or two. And I try very, very hard to make sure my books hold up on a second reading, that you’ll catch the little clues and maybe even realize I left some things sitting out in plain sight for you to catch on your second or third read, so that other story is still a fun one for you.

(like page 115 of Paradox Bound, for example. I don’t think anyone’s caught that. Not many people, anyway)

But that’s not the story I want you to read first. There’s a reason I put these things on page one and not page fifty, those things on page one hundred and not on page one, and why I was slightly vague about that so it’d be right where it was supposed to be... but you wouldn’t register what it was until a second or third time through.  Because this is the effect I’m trying to create, not that.

And the awful thing about spoilers is they make sure someone can never read this story. It’s almost impossible to unlearn something, so that experience gets lost forever. They never get to read this story... only that one.

And that’s a shame.

Again, as I mentioned above, still many issues about spoilers past this one. But hopefully—for now, at least—we’ve put the “do they even matter” question to rest. And also the “maybe your story’s not that good” defense of them.

Also-also, that Plato thing about halfway through was a joke. Please put that to rest too. In fact, forget it, just to be safe. Wipe it from your mental hard drive.

Next time...

I’ve got to be honest, I’m juggling four different projects right now and (at the moment) none of them have inspired a ranty blog post. So next week may just be some random cartoons or something unless any of you has a pressing question you’d like me to blather on about.

Until then... go write.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Non-Standard Cake

At this point I’ve blabbed on about my weekend movie/Twitter habits more than a few times. I won’t bore you with them again. Just wanted to say that’s what inspired this week’s blathering.

I’ve mentioned once or twice before that there are some very standard shots in filmmaking. Decades—almost a century, really—of natural selection in the editing bay has established these as the solid basics. The foundation of a visual storytelling language we've all picked up on. Once you know these shots, you’ll spot them again and again and again in every show or movie you watch.

Of course, they’re not the only shots used in filmmaking. Some clever filmmakers figure out how to combine these basics with a push in or some other camera move, making what would be a static shot a little more dynamic at a key moment. Others may skip over one type of shot in a certain scene to heighten tension, or maybe to decrease it. And some figure out how to toss all of those shots and create something new that does the job they need done better than anything else could.

Which brings us, naturally, to cake.

I’ve mentioned growing up poor here once or thrice before. One aspect of this is we didn’t have treats in the house that much when I was a kid (or, y’know, food in general sometimes). So my mom was always looking for ways to save money and cut corners—a lot of stuff we’d call lifehacks today. One she stumbled across one time was a magazine article suggesting (you may have heard this one) mayonnaise in cake recipes instead of eggs and cooking oil. I mean, that’s what mayo is, right? Eggs and oil. My brother and I were highly skeptical and voiced our well-thought-out concerns (“Eeewwwwwwwww!”), but my mom tried it anyway.

Much to everyone’s surprise, it worked fine. The cake looked and tasted like... well, cake. We couldn’t even tell the difference. Granted, my palate was a little less refined back then, but to a generally picky kid who wanted chocolate cake... it was chocolate cake.

Here’s another fun cake story. I’m a big fan of German oatmeal cake. When I (finally) grew out of little kid basic-chocolate love, German oatmeal became my new favorite. And still is. My partner’s made it several times for my birthday, even when we were dirt poor and the whole thing was 99¢ Store mix and frosting. Since then she’s made it from scratch a few times, too.

But... it was never quite right. It wasn’t bad, by any means (and I always ate way more than I should’ve) but something about it didn’t quite line up with how I remembered it as a kid. And then this year she stumbled across a version of the recipe saying to broil the cake for a few minutes once it had been frosted, which would let the frosting melt, sink in, and even caramelize a tiny bit. And it was fantastic. It wasn’t bad before, but this alteration to the recipe made it so much better.

Of course, we all understand that these aren’t random choices. There’s a reason that mayo substitution trick works, but we couldn’t do the same thing with any condiment and expect the same results. Horseradish mustard in cake mix? I feel safe saying it’s not going to be all that tasty. Likewise, there’s a big difference between tweaking the recipe to broil the cake as opposed to, say, grilling it over an open flame. We definitely won’t get the same results.

And just because these results worked in cake doesn’t mean they’ll work anywhere else. This mayonnaise-for-eggs trick isn’t going to work if I’m trying to make an omelet. Definitely won’t work for steak tartar. Heck, I might not even be able to make it work in pancakes and they’re pretty close to being... well, cake.

Also worth noting.. the mayo cake wasn’t really any better. It wasn’t suddenly the best cake I’d ever had. As I mentioned, one of my few solid memories of this is all of us talking about how you couldn’t notice the difference at all. It just tasted like... cake. So –barring some weird dietary restrictions—it’s not really worth a new recipe. It’s just a good trick to remember if I happen to run out of eggs.

I’ve used cooking a few times before as a metaphor for writing, so hopefully at this point you’ve got a vague sense where I’m going with this.

There’s nothing wrong with trying new and different things. Really, it’s what we’re all trying to do, right? To find a new way of telling an old story, or a completely unexpected way to tell a new story. To solve those storytelling problems in a way nobody’s ever solved them before.

But the key point here is I want my new and different solutions to be better than the standard way of solving these problems. If I figure out a way to do something in my story—a trick with the structure, maybe a clever way of phrasing things, perhaps a very cool way to have a big reveal—and it works so much better than the standard way of doing it... I mean, that’s fantastic. I’ve improved on the original recipe, so to speak, and my end result is even better because of it

If I decide to do things in a new way and it works just the same as the old way, no better no worse, well... personally, I’m a little torn. I mean, it’s not like my new idea’s failing in any way, as far as the story itself is concerned. But I think—and this might just be me—that it’s distracting. Now I’m doing something different and there’s no real point to it except... to be different. I’m doing it just to do it, not to actually make the story better. And that seems—to me, anyway—like I’m trying to draw attention to myself (the author) rather than to my story.

And if my new way of doing things works worse than the old way... well, why would I do that? Why would I want a structure that makes the story much harder to follow? Why would I use phrases or formats that knock my readers out of the story? I mean, it’s (sort of) understandable I might be tempted to try chocolate-and-horseradish mustard cake, but hopefully I can be honest with myself about what came out of that oven and just, y’know, destroy it, rather than forcing the members of the culinary school admissions board to each try a slice.

Y’see, Timmy, people talk about how change is good, but there are times this phrase gets used as more of a defense than a reassurance. Yeah, it’s absolutely okay to try to change things and I shouldn’t worry about trying. But something isn’t automatically good just because it’s a change. Sometimes I’m changing things just to change them, and the only thing different about the final work is me yelling “I changed things!” And other times... well, it’s just bad. I’ve done something that didn’t work and didn’t get the response I wanted. I’ve pushed my reader away rather than drawn them in.

And that’s not going to get me any cake.

Next time... I don’t know. If nobody’s got any questions, maybe I’ll talk about spoilers or something.

Until then, go write. 

Thursday, August 12, 2021

The Great Migration

A week or so back on Twitter I was asked to comment on a question that needed a little more response than 280 characters allowed. I tried to give a quick, simple answer, but it gnawed at me for a bit, ‘cause I’ve seen this question many times before (from several angles), and it always feels like the answers it gets are very simplified. So a few days later I added it to my list of topics for here.

"Anyone know whether publishers will pick up a book that's
already been self-published for a new edition?"

Like so many things in this industry, this is one of those questions that sounds really simple, but there’s actually a lot more to it. I think this is really a few questions that've been Voltroned together and then demanding a single, comprehensive answer. Which is why the answers it gets tend to always feel a bit over-simplified and off. To me, anyway.

For example, even if we’re just asking how many self-pubbed books get picked up by traditional presses, this is a loaded question. Because most people don’t consider smaller traditional presses in that—they’re really just interested in the big ones. And small presses are, generally speaking, more open to picking up a formerly self-pubbed book. So viewing things this way already skews my answer.

Plus, it depends on just how we’re phrasing things—slightly different questions can get very different answers. If I’m asking how many Big Five books started off a self published works... the odds aren’t horrible. I mean, just personally, I know enough people it’s happened to, and I have a good enough sense of how many books get published, so I feel comfortable saying yeah, there’s passable odds it can happen. It’s not exactly common, but I’d be willing to bet out of the thousands of books the big presses put out each year, more than a couple were previously self-published. And, as I just said, the odds get even better if we bring in smaller presses.

However... if my question is what are the odds of a self published book getting picked up by a big traditional press... well, those numbers plummet. Because now we’re talking about hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of self published books each year and (as I said above) maaaaybe a dozen of them get picked up. So I can end up with a very different picture of things depending on what I ask. And, to be honest, how people want to answer. There’s a lot of wiggle room here to make the answers fit what somebody wants to believe. Or wants you to believe.

All that in mind... why don’t we try to break this Voltron-question down into its three (or maybe four) component lion-questions and answer each of those.

First off is the big one. Is my book something a traditional publisher would even want? Let’s be honest—anything can be self-published. Absolutely anything. The most illiterate, nonsensical garbage can be self-published. So right off the bat, I need to have actually written a good book. Something a publisher might’ve picked up if they’d originally seen it. Something with a very solid structure, good characters, and strong dialogue. In this aspect, it’s just like any other book they’d be looking at, and they’re probably going to have much higher standards than... well KDP.

Not only that, but odds are they’re going to be looking at my actual self-published book. I mean, I’m now a small press trying to convince a big press to take on one of my titles, so is it shocking to think they might look at it? Is it edited and copyedited? Does it have a nice layout? Awful as it sounds, does it have a halfway decent cover? They’re not going to judge on any one of these things, but they’re all going to have a degree of influence. I’m asking them to pick up this book, and if it looks like a crap book... well, they’re going to notice that.

Second is the money side of things. Is it worth it for a traditional publisher to pick up my book and republish it? Again, one aspect of this is going to be like any other book—is this the kind of thing the publisher usually sells? Not a lot of historical romances coming out of Tor, and Ballantine isn’t picking up a ton of splatterpunk. And even if I’ve written a straight sci-fi book, is it so sub-sub-niche that Tor might only sell a few hundred copies altogether?

That’s actually a good place to bring up a sort of second-and-a-half point. There’s also some math at work here. See, if my self-published book’s only sold sixty or seventy copies, it means it’s not getting any interest or word of mouth... which means it’s probably not worth it for a big press to republish it. But if the book’s sold too many copies, that means I’ve actually eaten into the potential audience. Every book realistically is only going to sell so many copies, so if all the market research says my book might appeal to an audience of ten thousand and I’m telling them it’s already sold eight thousand self published... that also means it's probably not worth it to them to pick it up.

Also (what are we up to, my second and three-quarters point?) right now, as I’m writing this and you’re reading it—okay, maybe not as you’re reading it, depending—publishers are actually having meetings about what’s going to be on sale for Christmas 2022 and even talking a bit about spring of 2023. Seriously. They’re working that far ahead. Which means, on a lot of levels, they’re not as interested in what’s going on right now. So I might think this is a fantastic time for my book to go big, but as far as they’re concerned... that time was fifteen months ago.

Third is what am I expecting to get out of this? Mass distribution? Book signing tours? A futon stuffed with twenty dollar bills?  Welllll... remember that math I mentioned above? How much they think they can make off my republished book is going to affect how much they’re going to pay me. I can’t expect to get a huge advance off something that’s been out there selling copies for a year or two now, so if I’m demanding a six or seven figure check out of this... get used to disappointment.

And them paying less money means they need to make less of an effort to recoup that money. So no book tours. Not on their dime, anyway. I’m probably still going to be pushing this a lot myself. It’ll be more available, and it’ll have a little more weight behind it, but I’ll still probably be doing the same level of self-promotion I was doing when it was self-pubbed.

Also worth noting that the days of piecemeal rights deals are pretty much long over. I can’t be thinking I’ll ask the traditional publisher to take over just print and audio rights, but I’ll still get to put out the ebook. Doesn’t matter if it’s my choice or because things are locked up in some previous deal. It’s extremely unlikely someone’s going to accept very limited rights for the book, especially a big publisher. I might be able to make it happen with a smaller press, but even they’re going to be a bit leery about it.

And all that’s kind of a broader answer to “will traditional publishers pick up a book that’s been self published.” There’s lots of ifs and buts in there, and I need to figure out where my book (and where I ) sit with all of them to get a real sense of an answer. And again, that’s just to get us to whether or not it’ll happen. Y’see Timmy, ultimately—like any other publishing venture—my journey of getting a self-published book picked up is going to be different than your journey, and odds are neither of us are going to get a deal like she did.

So... very long answer to a deceptively short question.

Next time, I want to talk about cake.

Until then... go write.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Shhhhhh! Say Nothing!

Let’s have a little moment of truth between us. At some point or another, for any number of possible reasons, most of us have been in a position where it’s in our best interest not to answer a question.  Or, at the very least, to take as long as possible to answer it.  A few such questions might be....

— “Hey, what’s in the bag?”
— “Do these jeans make me look fat?”
— “Are you actually claiming this as a deduction?”
— “Did you eat the last piece of cheesecake?”
— “So, where were you last night?”

Now, by the same token, there are questions that should take no time at all to answer. Things where, if someone asks us and we know the answer, there are very few situations where it makes any sense for us to delay or be evasive. These are the ones where I have to seriously wonder why someone isn’t answering--and they’d better have a damn good reason for their lack of response. A few examples of that would be things like

— “Do you love me?”
— “How the hell do we get out of here?”
— “What are tonight’s specials?”
— “Which one of these is the antidote?”
— “WTF is that thing and how do we kill it?”

I mean, why would you hesitate on any of these? If we need the antidote and I know which vial it is, that's a no-brainer, right? Grab the yellow vial marked #23 and pour it down his throat.

For example, I loved LOST.  Yeah, sorry, absolutely loved it. Even the questionable third season. Yes, I will fight you if you say foolish things about the ending.

But... I can admit LOST suffered a bit when Benjamin Linus became a regular member of the cast. And a big part of that was because we all knew there was a lot of stuff he wasn’t telling anyone. There were still lots of cool mysteries on the island and Michael Emerson is a wonderful actor... but there were also lots of times where the “mystery” was just Ben sitting there... not talking.

A concept I’ve brought up here a bunch of times is withheld information. I’ve mentioned it a couple times recently, but it occurred to me I haven’t’ really explained it in... wow, ten years? Seriously? Okay, so this is long overdue.

Withheld information is when the characters (or really, the writer) hold back information from the audience for no other reason than to drive the plot forward. Characters just don’t talk about things, even though it’d be very natural for them to. Or they make vague statements when they could just as easily make clear ones. We’ve all seen things like this, yes? Where the only reason there are conflicts or challenges is because characters just aren’t saying what they know.

Withheld information’s the clumsy, unskilled version of mystery and suspense. It’s what I fall back on when my story doesn’t actually have a mystery but I’m trying to create the illusion of one. Because there’s more to a mystery—or suspense, or a twist—than me just not telling my readers stuff.

The thing is, withholding information is really just me and my characters... not doing anything. The plot may keep advancing in a clumsy way, but it’s almost always going to end up falling flat. Because information in a story tends to hit a tipping point. There comes a time when that knowledge has to come out because it just makes absolutely no logical sense for it not to. And when it doesn’t...

Y’see, Timmy, the one thing withheld information definitely creates is frustration with my reader. If Wakko’s been poisoned, Phoebe knows which one of the vials is the antidote, and she’s just not telling anyone—that’s just going to annoy the hell out of my reader. I mean, yeah, it makes the scene more tense, but why wouldn’t Phoebe save her friend? Why wouldn’t she help? If she’s the villain, sure, but other than that...?

And, wow, if we get to the end of the story and that’s when we find out Phoebe knew which one was the antidote and didn’t say anything? I mean, I need to have some ironclad reasons for her silence then. That’s when my readers are going to be looking to punch holes in things, so I need things to be sooooo solid if I’m going to go this way.

Now, all of this doesn’t mean I need to tell my readers everything. But what I don’t tell them depends on what kind of effect I’m trying to create in my story. If I withhold (or give out) information at the wrong points, my story’s going to trip over its own feet. So to speak.

So here are three story elements and how they use information.

A mystery is when the main character and the audience are aware a piece of information has been hidden from them, and my story usually involves a search for that unknown fact. At it’s simplest, a mystery is a question someone in my story is asking and trying to find the answer to.

Suspense is when there’s an important piece of information the audience knows and the characters don’t. The key here is that the characters don’t know that they need to know this vital fact. ussually as soon as possible. Like that Phoebe (who Wakko’s taking back to his hotel room) is the murderer. Or there’s a bomb under the table. These are common suspense situations we've all been in, right?

A twist is when a piece of information is revealed that my characters and my readers didn’t know was being kept from them. They didn’t even suspect those facts were out there, waiting to affect the story. A twist comes from out of nowhere and changes a lot of perceptions for the reader and probably the characters. We’ve all been assuming <<SPOILERS>> Luke Skywalker’s father is dead, so when we learn that Vader is his father, it’s a twist that alters our view of several things we’ve been told up until now.

Yeah, sorry. Blew the big Skywalker family secret there.

If I’m trying to use one of these devices, I want to make sure I’m using them correctly. I don’t want to just withhold information. My characters should be just as smart and clever as my audience, and if they aren’t talking... well, I should be sure there’s a solid reason why.

Next time, I’m going to try to answer another question that got tossed my way.

Until then, go write.